Does it make sense that the creator of a Beatles Shabbat went to an Orthodox yeshiva for nine years?
He did, and it does, says Cantor Daniel Mutlu, whose rock service will come to Temple Sinai in Tenafly on February 3.
“Both my parents were born in Istanbul,” said Cantor Mutlu, who was born in Worcester, Mass. Moiz and Dora met here, married, and had six children. “They decided to send us to a Chabad Lubavitch yeshiva. It was the best deal in town, and they wanted their children to have a Jewish education even though they were not that observant.”
Cantor Mutlu’s surname means “happy” or “proud.” When his grandfather fled Russia during the revolution, he explained, “he found himself in Turkey, which was more hospitable to Jews.” It was, however, the practice that everyone had to have a Turkish name. So, he said, Maislin became Mutlu. Both Cantor Mutlu’s parents have Ashkenazi and Sephardi ancestors.
“I was a little troublemaker at school,” said Cantor Mutlu, who will become senior cantor at Central Synagogue in Manhattan in July. “Having parents who were not observant led to some confusion and a disconnect. But not in a bad way. I began asking questions, which is good.”
“The Lubavitch experience was great,” he continued. “I learned to read Hebrew and to love studying text and also developed a love for communal worship and davening. Singing was a big part of what they did.” Graduating from the yeshiva after eighth grade, he went to a public high school “and suddenly my Jewish world was gone.” Left, as he said, to fend for himself, “I stumbled upon music in high school.” He originally wanted to take computer programming but there were no courses available. “The only class available was music theory,” he said.
Not quite knowing what music theory was, Daniel said he’d try it — and loved it. “It began a love affair with music. I joined the choir, sang in school musicals, and even tried out for district competitions.”
Then, during his last year of high school, his parents and three of his siblings moved to Israel. “My dad had lost his job and was having a hard time. He got an offer from IBM in Israel.” Cantor Mutlu visited his family in Israel many times during his senior year and then later, while he was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Through those visits, “I got a chance to reconnect with Judaism. It dawned on me that I could become a cantor.”
If the mixing of his two passions seems inevitable, so too is the fact that he now is coming to visit Tenafly.
“My grandfather lived across the street from Temple Emanuel in Worcester — then headed by Rabbi Jordan Millstein, now the religious leader of Temple Sinai in Tenafly — and would go every morning for minyan.” Apparently, his grandfather misheard an announcement and thought the congregation was looking for a new cantor. His grandson had just graduated from the conservatory and he thought this would be a perfect fit.
“He called their office every day talking about me, until the cantor there called me and said to tell my grandfather to stop calling, because they weren’t looking for a new cantor. They were looking for a soloist for their High Holiday quartet. I said I would try out.” He auditioned and was accepted. The synagogue’s cantor at the time, Betsy Peters Epstein, explained to him what being a cantor entailed.
“I sang at Temple Emanuel for couple of years while preparing for cantorial school” — at Hebrew Union College, which requires that students spend their first year in Israel. “After my year in Israel I heard there was really an opening at Temple Emanuel. Since I was still a student, I became a student cantor.”
Cantor Mutlu went on to work in Rye, N.Y., and then at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, where he has been since 2011. He and his wife, Nina, have three children, who are 7, 4, and 2.
Back to Tenafly, or more accurately, to the cantor’s relationship with Rabbi Millstein, which began in Worcester. “The back story is that in Worcester, we” — he and Rabbi Millstein — “created the idea of a tefillah band, instrumentalists accompanying the cantor and the liturgy. We did that once a month. Now and then we used a special rock Shabbat, to ramp it up even more. That involved more contemporary melodies and instruments.”
Cantor Mutlu did his first Beatles service in Houston. While it was well received, he acknowledges that “it’s not for everyone and not for every congregation. You have to know what works where.”
Why a rock service? “This is the music and sounds and instrumentation we grew up with and they resonate with us in daily life,” he said. “These days, it’s important to bring those shared, accessible things into synagogue. It makes the Hebrew text that much more accessible.
“But there’s a time and place for everything, and it’s the job of a cantor to choose the appropriate time and melody. The Beatles Shabbat is just one tool in a cantor’s arsenal of ways to bring the congregation in.”
For his part, Rabbi Millstein — whose congregation holds a rock Shabbat once a month — is excited about his old friend’s visit. He recalls his first meeting in Worcester with the now-cantor.
“It was August, and the High Holidays were approaching,” he said. “Our cantor came and said, ‘We have a young guy, a tenor, in the quartet and he’s Jewish.’ That was extremely surprising.” He knew of no professional Jewish singers in the area. “I came up to the choir to meet him. He was all of 22.”
The young singer and his girlfriend, who also had graduated from the New England Conservatory, began coming to the synagogue more often. Nina, who was not Jewish then, “got interested in Judaism and wanted to work toward conversion.” Rabbi Millstein worked with her, performed the couple’s wedding ceremony, and encouraged Daniel Mutlu to attend cantorial school, sending him with a recommendation to HUC.
As a student, “he came up every weekend and was our cantor,” Rabbi Millstein said. “We had an incredible experience together.” He looks back on his role as Cantor Mutlu’s mentor with pride. “We were so blessed to have someone with that kind of ability.”
Their friendship led to Cantor Mutlu’s upcoming visit. And with Temple Sinai’s monthly rock service and the cantor’s already prepared Beatles Shabbat, “this was perfect.” Sinai’s monthly rock service has been “really successful,” Rabbi Millstein said. The instrumentalists are synagogue members, all volunteers, led by the cantor, Nitza Shamah.
“It’s not hard rock, but more like folk rock,” Rabbi Millstein said. “People love it.” The core members of the band, which includes synagogue leaders, had their own rock cover band. “They’re really good. They’ve been playing for years.” The service is preceded by a free dinner prepared by synagogue volunteers, who shop for, cook, and serve it.
Rabbi Millstein, who said he’s more of a fan than a musician, pointed out that the band also does “Sinai Sessions, when we turn the temple into a nightclub for a night. It’s intergenerational, and both men and women. It’s the idiom people relate to, and it really has been very effective.”
Temple Sinai’s Cantor Nitza, as she is known, said, “we’re actually blessed to have this amazing band — all temple members working together on a regular basis. They’re very good.” While all the band members have careers outside music, she said, music remains extremely important in their lives. Instruments include keyboard, percussion, guitar, violin, and the occasional sax or flute, “depending on who is available. They vary each month,” she said. The group includes between 10 and 12 members. “Sometimes we bring in a guest. We’ve had Joshua Nelson twice. We’ll start rehearsing this week with prayers set to Beatles music.”
Rock services are “very upbeat and open the hearts” of attendees,” Cantor Shamah added. “They invite participation. People start to know the music, but we also put in something new and exciting. We look at the Torah portion and the band comes up with an American song that fits the theme of the parsha. We ask the rabbi for a dvar Torah tying the portion into the song.”
Who: Cantor Daniel Mutlu
What: Will lead a Beatles Shabbat
When: On February 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: At Temple Sinai, 1 Engle St., Tenafly.
You should also know: The service is free and open to the public. The kosher-style meal preceding the service is free as well, but reservations are required. The dinner is served at 6:15.
For reservations or more information: Call the synagogue, (201) 568-3035.